I believe in backyards. I like to sit at night in mine and picture all the thousands and thousands of backyards stretching out all around me, across Los Angeles, with mine somehow always at the center. I know not everyone can have one, but I am fortunate enough to own a modest house in L.A., and the yard behind my house is small, but cozy. When we bought the place, the yard was just a square of bare, rock-hard dirt, with a single ratty elm tree. But we liked it, because we knew we could make something interesting out of it. Something ours.
Over the years I slowly turned that patch of dirt into a lawn, a flower bed, and a tiny patio. Then one day my neighbor, a talented gardener, came over and announced that he was moving, and could we use some free plants? Oh yes! That was the beginning of our real landscaping, and our real garden. The least interesting specimen he bestowed on us was a short bare stick with a root ball, but he handed it over very reluctantly. “An Adriatic fig,” he whispered. “I brought it on the airplane from Italy, and held it in my lap the whole way home.”
I shrugged, thinking it didn’t look like much. “Okay, thanks,” I said. “I’ll plant it.”
So it went in the spot where we had torn out the elm, and, perhaps because L.A. and Italy share a similar climate, that fig felt right at home, and shot up like a weed. Today, twelve years later, what was once a sick-looking little stick is a magnificent, shady tree, thirty feet high, that produces hundreds of succulent figs every year.
That is how I became an urban farmer of sorts. Every summer I look forward to picking those sweet Adriatic figs and turning them into jam and other treats for neighbors and friends. And now, every summer, there’s more: tomatoes, chile peppers, strawberries, boysenberries. Of course what is most rewarding is the eating, and the best part of that is picking things where they grow and eating them on the spot, juice dribbling down the chin. But there is also that sense of self-sufficiency, of pride in growing even a little bit of one’s own food in a big city, where we are all a little too dependent on agribusiness and supermarkets.
That is what I wish for everyone — to walk out into their backyard, to sit at a table in the shade of a fruit tree, pick something off a low-hanging branch, pop it in the mouth, savor the sweetness of the fruit, and relish the sweetness of the moment. One of my favorite writers, Voltaire, a cynical philosopher if ever there was one, has one very heartfelt message — that in order to achieve personal peace amid the world’s absurdities and agonies, you only have to garden. Sitting under my tree, 250 years later, I’d have to agree.